Pro-gambling measures remain in holding pattern before state Senate

Sponsors of two bills sought by owners of floating casinos continue to lack the votes they need to pass the measures in the state Senate.

State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, signaled that he didn’t want the Senate on Wednesday to consider his bill to allow Louisiana’s 15 floating casinos to operate land side.

Minutes later, state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, also chose to not hear his bill to permit the DiamondJacks casino to move from Bossier City to rural Tangipahoa Parish, just east of Hammond. The site is in White’s district.

Both bills are now scheduled for Monday. If they pass, they would move to the state House for consideration.

In a brief interview, Johns said a couple of his votes were missing on Wednesday.

White said he wanted to keep his pledge to have the Senate consider his bill after Johns’.

Johns’ measure, Senate Bill 316, will serve as an initial test vote of the Senate’s appetite for pro-gambling bills.

The Senate has passed one pro-gambling bill, which would reduce the minimum amount of fuel that video poker truck stops have to sell each month, from 100,000 to 25,000. The measure, Senate Bill 184, was narrowed in scope and then passed with the minimum of 20 votes three weeks ago. It is now pending before the House.

Johns’ SB316 would allow the 15 boats to operate within 1,200 feet of their designated berth site and would replace the longtime cap of 30,000 square feet of gambling space with a limit of 2,365 gambling positions. A 13-member task force that Johns co-chaired – along with Ronnie Jones, the chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board – recommended the change.

Among the 15 boats are three in Baton Rouge (the Hollywood Casino, the Belle and L’Auberge – all on the Mississippi River) and two in Jefferson Parish (the Treasure Chest on Lake Pontchartrain in Kenner and Boomtown on the Harvey Canal in Harvey). No one can say for sure how many of the 15 boats might operate ashore.

Johns has been trying for three weeks to secure enough votes to call up the measure.

African-American senators have delayed consideration of the bill, for two reasons. First, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, expressed anger upon learning that three riverboat casinos – Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino in Shreveport, the Horseshoe Casino and Hotel in Bossier City and the Eldorado Resort in Shreveport — have fallen short of meeting goals for contracting with minority-owned businesses.

Several African-American senators, led by state Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, also withheld their support for Johns’ bill to signal their unhappiness with his no vote last month when the Senate rejected legislation that would increase Louisiana’s minimum wage rate from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour over two years. Carter’s Senate Bill 162 fell three votes short of passage, 17-21, on March 27. Carter chose not to hear his bill on Wednesday.

Effort to allow Louisiana’s floating casinos to operate on land has stalled; here’s why

Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative, faith-based group, is opposing both gambling measures.

White’s legislation, Senate Bill 417, would designate the Tangipahoa River as an authorized waterway for a riverboat casino, even though the river is too shallow and narrow for nearly all vessels. It’s not clear whether Johns’ bill would have to pass to permit the Tangipahoa boat to begin operations.

SB417 also would authorize a referendum in Tangipahoa Parish on whether to approve the boat, a requirement under a 1996 law. The parish council authorized a November election last week.

Tangipahoa Parish Council votes to put casino proposal to voters; here’s what happens next

“Give us the chance to vote,” Parish President Robby Miller, who was in the Senate chamber, said on Wednesday.

Owners of Peninsula Pacific, the Los Angeles-based company that wants to move DiamondJacks, have said they would invest $100 million to create the casino, which would make it a smaller project than those that have been upgraded recently in Louisiana, according to industry experts.

Company representatives have promised the business would generate 500 permanent jobs in the parish with an average salary and benefits of $35,000 each – a major enticement for Miller and other local election officials. Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is from Tangipahoa, has said he would vote for the move.

Peninsula Pacific has hired 11 high-priced lobbyists to try to win legislative approval for the move.

An unlikely coalition has opposed White’s bill, including pastors in Tangipahoa Parish worried that the casino would produce an increase in gambling addicts, lobbyists for Boyd Gaming, which owns the Treasure Chest casino on Lake Pontchartrain in Kenner, and lobbyists for video poker truck stops, who have outlets in St. Helena and St. John parishes.

DiamondJacks is the worst-performing floating casino in Louisiana.

Peninsula Pacific wants to operate the casino on a 103-acre plot of land in Tangipahoa just south of Interstate 12 and immediately west of Louisiana Highway 445. Peninsula Pacific operates casinos in several states, including one that opened in New York state one year ago and is performing so poorly that its business partner has sought – but failed – to win a reduction in its state taxes.

Residents who live nearby the proposed Tangipahoa site have noted that the property flooded twice in 2016 and guess that the forested parcel would have to be raised.

A company representative said two weeks ago that that the development could open by spring 2020.